I want to write for the rest of the week about the efforts to deliver aid to Tripureswor, but for today, I want to introduce you to where I stayed while I was there.
By something of a fluke, I had arrived in Tripureswor the week that school exams were happening, and that put beds in the village at a bit of a premium. Ward 6, where I was, happens to be right across the river from the high school where the district examinations are administered, and so every year, students from other villages (usually students who live an hour or more away, walking distance) come to stay for a few nights so that they can be close to the testing site during the testing week. Families from distant villages make arrangements with families they know for bed space, and so a large number of the tin shelters in the village were housing not only the family who usually lived there, but anywhere between one and five test-anxious high schoolers. The family of Bishnu, the man who had invited Laura’s organization to come stay in the first place, not only had Bishnu, his parents, his brother, and his sister who came from Kathmandu following her own exams, but an extra boy from one of the villages a few hills up. So they didn’t have anywhere to put me.
Instead, they made arrangements for me to stay with an older couple, locally known to everyone as Sailo Dai (second-oldest brother) and Saili (second-oldest sister-in-law).
They are the only Newar-ethnic couple in an otherwise entirely Brahmin-Chhetri village, and theirs was one of the only houses to survive the earthquake. It is a beautiful multi-story stone house, with clay-washed floors and a blue-and-red-painted wood porch. It stands next to the river, and because it was built on a solid rock-slab rather than the loose riverine gravel under the rest of the village, it didn’t fall with the other houses.
Sailo Dai, though, thinks that his house survives because it stands between the Shiva temple by the bridge, and a remarkable place called the Nag Than.
The Nag Than (“Place of Serpent-Deities”) is a grotto of large rocks with a pipal tree in the middle, located right behind Sailo Dai and Saili’s house. It is one of the most hauntingly beautiful things I have ever seen, an improbably wild-feeling, peaceful, powerful place that can yet be seen from the kitchen window of the house it abuts.
The Nag Than consists of maybe a dozen very large rocks in a cluster. There are hollows in the rocks that collect pools of water, and a straight-vertical cave in the middle that is purportedly where Nagas reside.
One section of rock cradles a self-emergent Shiva-linga — an emanation of divine power, the great Mahesvara voluntarily coming into the world through a special geological formation.
Sailo Dai serves as the ad-hoc priest for this remarkable place. He is a farmer by trade — he has no formal schooling, nor the caste status to technically qualify as a Hindu priest — and yet every morning he performs puja rituals to the powers of the universe, which become available through the grotto. He gathers flowers from around his house, places tika powder on a plate, lights wicks, and goes through the Nag Than honoring the deities of his life.
He doesn’t know any fancy puja liturgies; instead, he just sings the names of his gods. Om namah Shivaya — om Hare Hare — om Mahesvara — jai Bhagawan.
Sailo Dai is one of the most deeply spiritual people I have ever met — as well as one of the most industrious, insanely hard-working people I’ve ever met. He grins from ear to ear at the smallest provocation, and talks constantly about how lucky he is, to have his health and his life, his children and his spouse, and to be able to do puja every day in a place like the Nag Than.
He is also exceptionally, embarrassingly generous. When I was presented to him as a house guest, he instantly agreed to share his family’s modest space. Even though Sailo and Saili’s house still stands, they do not feel safe inside, and so right along with the rest of the village, they built a new tin shelter, a bit away from the house (close to the outhouse, which, fortunately, also survived the earthquake). So Sailo and Saili were cooking in their kitchen, sitting in the mornings and evenings to drink tea on their porch, but sleeping in the single-room tin hut where they felt safe.
(The tin shelter which Sailo Dai built is to the right in the photo. An old brick pilgrim’s shelter, probably for people visiting the Nag Than, stands to the left, housing part of the corn harvest and showing some of the ravages of earthquake damage.)
They had moved two beds from their house down to the tin shelter, and before I arrived, Sailo had slept in one and Saili had slept in the other. When I arrived, though, Sailo Dai set himself up to sleep on the floor. (In most households, the pressure would probably have been on the wife to give up her bed. Saili is quite frail, though, and suffers back pain, so I don’t think this was ever entertained as an option.) I told him that this arrangement hurt my heart — that I didn’t want to sleep in his bed if it meant he had to sleep on the floor. After all, I had come in the first place to try to help people who had lost so much in the earthquake; I didn’t want to just come to take more from them.
Sailo Dai looked me in the eye and said, “No, no: My god (mero Bhagawan) picked you up from your country, and brought you here to be a guest in my house and sleep in my bed. You are a blessing to me, and if I serve you as my guest, I will be serving my god.”
There was definitely one of us who was a blessing to the other, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me.
(photo credit: Laura Spero)